Fighting the system: The aging body and the aging UMC

September 21st, 2015

Like just about everyone I know, I am in a constant battle with my body’s survival desire to put on weight.

Vanity drives my battle. Cellular memory and human history drives my body.

My body will ultimately win. It might be a good idea to be thankful for that.

The way the human body puts on weight (quickly) and takes it off (slowly) has kept humankind going from the beginning. Were it not for the tendency, even the barest of famines would quickly kill the majority. But because most can fatten up quickly and lose slowly, we’ve survived horrific food shortages.

It’s a gift. It just happens that we live in an unprecedented time in human history where we suffer with an abundance of food rather than periodic shortages. Research consistently shows that those who are moderately overweight are more likely to outlive both their more slender and seriously obese contemporaries.

Simply put, it is evolutionarily adaptive to put on weight. We battle an entrenched system. Realistically, the best I can do is stay stable. That alone takes constant vigilance to keep moving and eat as healthily as possible in as small a quantities that I can live with without becoming food-obsessed.

The system has more strength than the individual

This is homeostasis at work. While substantive change to weight is possible, the system will fight tooth and nail to bring it back. The system has more strength than the individual.

So let’s turn to the church. In particular here, The United Methodist Church since I know it best, but the power of the system has applicability to any structure that is centrally driven and slow to make changes.

Three and a half years ago, the UMC engaged in its usual practice of a General Conference, known as GC. The GC convenes every four years. Only by a majority vote of the Roberts Rules of Order-governed gathering can our rule book, the much lamented, nearly unreadable, often-ignored, Book of Discipline be amended.

After outrageous expense, significant disruptions poorly handled by presiding Bishops, lobbying efforts created in smoke-filled rooms by various caucus groups determined to pronounce victory over those who differ, a few pieces of legislation passed in 2012.

About six months later, the Judicial Council, just doing its job of keeping the UMC in line with the jot and tittle of the Book of Discipline, overturned all legislation of significance.

Thus we have the prime example of the force of homeostasis. The nearly impossible task of losing weight may actually be easier than trying to change the system called “The United Methodist Church.”

I wrote this at the time:

We are going to have to engender our own revolution/reformation or die slowly of strangulation by methods that no longer support the heart of Methodism. No one in their right mind wants to die this way. But we are now at the crossroads and must choose: strangulation or revolution?

I wish we didn’t have to do this. Revolutions hurt, and leave scarred landscapes and burnt-out buildings. People die. Pain becomes our middle name. Sad tears accompany nearly every decision. Passionate arguments punctuate every discussion.

But the structure has cracked and the unrepairable foundation now sits exposed.

I have watched proposal after proposal coming forth since then to try to keep the UMC afloat. Most place more layers of unwieldy structural changes onto the already unstable foundation.

So little trust exists within the church that the hope of real dialogue, or “Christian conferencing” as we like to all it, breathes only with a death rattle now.

Recently, there was a big brouhaha when three male, well-connected, conservative clergy members decided to “out” a lay woman who has devoted herself to the church. This woman wishes to take on a second career as an ordained deacon — possibly the most unrewarding but service-rich position available.

She, an attorney, gained online credentials to perform a legal same-sex wedding in order to protect ordained clergy friends. Those clergy wanted to act as celebrant but knew they would face church trial and possible loss of ordination credentials if they did so.

This well-written article explains the incredible mess that resulted from what can easily be described as childish tattle-telling masked in self-righteous rule following. It also illustrates superbly well our tangled polity. The 4,000,000 word US Tax Code may be longer than the various documents that rule the UMC, but our stuff is probably equally as impenetrable.

The system is killing us.

Here’s what I see right now, and I admit I sit in no seats of power to validate this. I offer simply observation by a retired elder in the UMC who has spent many years in other denominations, and also spent the last year visiting multiple churches and noting which ones were showing massive growth and why.

I write in broad generalities here, knowing there are always specific exceptions.

When looking at the concentration of power and money, the UMC reflects many of the demographic tendencies of the U.S. and the world in general. In the UMC, the lion’s share of money and power sits with a few large churches, many of which choose not to identify publicly as United Methodist.

From what I can tell, the pastors of these churches tend to be male, entrepreneurial in personality, work from an evangelical, conservative theology and concentrate their efforts on the more wealthy, less demographically diverse suburbs. The growth is there. So are the funds.

Although there are a number of thriving mid-size churches still around, most mid-size churches appear to be declining and the vast majority of churches are small. Many struggle for survival, often for demographic reasons such as declining populations in small towns. Others see the death blow when the big, shiny megachurch moves in and can offer youth in particular far more fun and stimulation than the older congregations can.

Many of the smallest churches close each year; others indicate their decline by requesting a move from full-time ordained clergy to part-time local pastors.

Divide by wealth?

I wonder if we’d be served best by changing our conferences from primarily geographically-based to primarily size-based.

The larger, wealthier churches, whose clergy may be technically itinerant but who in practice have lengthy, even lifelong appointments, would form one large conference. They should also shoulder 95% of the financial obligations of the worldwide church.

Because most of these clergy are entrepreneurial in nature, they would more than likely quickly break down the types of bureaucratic structures and money-draining obligations current choking us. Clergy who need/want a move and who already serve at the large church level could move among themselves more freely.

The rest of the churches, gathered in larger geographical conferences, could concentrate on moving nimbly, returning to the original method of vital circuits. The bishops of these small-church conferences would use their energy to nurture the clergy under their leadership. Those gifted as preachers would move from church to church, offering the very best of teaching and theology.

Local pastors would shepherd local flocks, knowing them well, keeping them connected, sinking deep into contextually helpful missions, and concentrating on the one-on-one actions of building disciples. Without the apportionment burden that is often non-proportionately placed on the smaller churches, they would have more freedom to engage in local ministry.

Let’s be realistic and creative: Connect by mission and demographic

I realize as I write this that my proposal has simply no chance of success. Just too radical.

Even so, I float this as a way to ask us to think perhaps a bit more realistically and more creatively about the system that right now will indeed slowly kill us. The Scriptures teach of the power of speaking truth. This is precisely what John Wesley did. He saw the dying Anglican church around him and broke through the system that at that time choked the Spirit of God to oblivion.

We all know that theological battles just lead to splits and more splits. We cannot and will not connect healthily that way. Instead let’s consider finding a way to reconnect on the basis of mission and demographic. It would be an effective way for the rich (big suburban churches) to help the poor (smaller urban and rural churches).

Both groups can do effective mission in their particular settings. It gives a structure that could be nimble and contextually significant again. That was the essence of Wesleyan genius. He and his preachers spoke to the realities of his culture.

We can do the same. We can actually be Wesleyan again. We can feel the freshness of the Spirit blow upon us. Yes, it will be disruptive. New life always disrupts established patterns and systems — just ask new parents. But without it, we doom ourselves.

In the meantime, let’s all get up and get some exercise!


Christy blogs at ChristyThomas.com.

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